Karen Abbott

Overbearing mothers skank up their preteen daughters for beauty pageants, while we watch in horror. But is this anything new? Not according to Karen Abbott, author of American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee (Random House, $26), whose subject was born in Seattle 100 years ago. In Abbott's telling, the money-lusting Mama Rose—played by Ethel Merman in the landmark 1959 Broadway musical Gypsy, based on Lee's memoirs—cared more about her two daughters' early vaudeville fame than their well-being. Lee and her sister, future actress June Havoc, were ruled by the whims of a near madwoman. And while Lee became a striptease star by the '30s, she still struggled for the love of an unforgiving, finicky public. Yet by the '50s, she had developed a confident, comic, almost intellectual persona that has much to do with the current burlesque revival. Appropriately, Abbott's presentation will be accompanied tonight by performers including Miss Indigo Blue and The Swedish Housewife. LAURA EASLEY

Thu., Feb. 3, 7 p.m., 2011

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